from “The Burning of Paper Instead of Children”
2. To imagine a time of silence
or few words
a time of chemistry and music
the hollows above your buttocks
traced by my hand
or, hair is like flesh, you said
an age of long silence
from this tongue this slab of limestone
or reinforced concrete
I’d like to open my paean to Adrienne Rich with a quote from Rich’s sister-in-arms (words and limbs) Audre Lorde. “Your silence won’t protect you.” It’s a quote that haunts me in the days of not-writing, daze of mourning. A quote that speaks both to and from a certain dialogic understanding of what it is to be a woman and a writer, of what it is to be alive. An unsentimental sentiment that calls out the tepid, the cautiously quiet. Through implication, Lorde describes the call and response that is the work of art. It seems right to begin here for three reasons—1. Adrienne Rich’s work stands as testament to a profoundly engaged refusal to sit quietly; 2. Rich engaged in unremitting dialogues with the words, works, and issues of her predecessors and contemporaries; and 3. Rich’s own insistence on being read and understood in a complex of contexts. She suggests and enacts (yes, still) the kinds of conversations and permutations of community that may indeed save our varied asses.
What troubles me are the silences in my own memory. I don’t remember when I first read Rich’s poetry or essays. No light-bulb moments here. It may have been in a high school or college creative writing class. I know that at some point I turned to her for her reading of Elizabeth Bishop. At some point, I turned to her essays in Blood, Bread and Poetry, and What Is Found There. At some point there was a close reading of poems in The Fact of a Doorframe, The Dream of a Common Language, and Diving Into the Wreck. The careful pencil marks give me away. But memory fails to narrate contexts or circumstances.
What is found instead of memory? As I look back over her work, I’m surprised. Surprised because it feels as if I’m reading her for the first time AND as if I’m returning to something familiar, something more integral and basic than memory. I re-discover in Rich challenges to the idea that “[t]he song is higher than the struggle, and the artist must choose between politics…and art…” I find a remarkable public grappling with the efficacy of language to defend or diffuse—“knowledge of the oppressor/this is the oppressor’s language/ yet I need it to talk to you”. Aware of the brutality and love that language can enact and bear witness to, and of our utter dependency on the forms of life that language engenders, Rich’s work holds a space for the kinds of difficult conversations, the difficult maps that mark each existence.